Politics & Law

Why would anyone claim UC doesn’t teach American history?

Rosemary Joyce

Back at the beginning of April, when Rick Santorum was still a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, he made a shocking claim about teaching in the University of California system:

“seven or eight of the California system of universities don’t even teach an American history course,” Santorum said. “It’s not even available to be taught.”

California news media quickly demonstrated that this claim was, to put it mildly, not credible. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow– a California native, — did a brilliant job disproving it from the easily available online course catalogue information anyone in the world can browse.

When Santorum did nothing to acknowledge his error, Maddow kept the pressure on– and today, the former senator and former presidential candidate admitted he was wrong.

Sort of.

What Santorum now claims he meant to say was that

none of the UC campuses teach a survey course in Western Civilization.

Maddow lost no time in showing that this revised claim is also false. So now, one supposes, we can wait to see if she receives another letter from Mr. Santorum acknowledging that he was wrong again. But whether he does or not, Mr. Santorum is not what is important here.

The question to consider is: why on earth would anyone try to make such bizarre claims?

As it happens, the source of Mr. Santorum’s false beliefs is completely obvious. At the time, he said it was something he had recently read.

A few days earlier, Peter Berkowitz wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal promoting these claims, based on something that claimed to be a research report, directed at the Regents of the University of California.

The source Berkowitz cited– indirectly the source of the misinformation Mr. Santorum continues to repeat– was written by a group calling itself the “California Association of Scholars”, described as “a division of the National Association of Scholars (NAS)”. For them, simply demonstrating that we do indeed teach courses on American history– and Western civilization– is not enough, because according to this reactionary advocacy group, UC faculty are teaching the wrong way.

They argue that even courses that seem to be about American history are actually subverting core American values, by such apparently unacceptable things as examining how difficult topics in American history like slavery shaped our past, or teaching about how progress towards social justice has been promoted in our history. This kind of teaching can move students to take direct action to improve life in the world today– and apparently, to this group, that kind of engagement is not what education should be about.

You have to develop a thick skin if you are going to teach in universities these days. University professors are routinely accused of not working hard enough for the money we are paid, by people who choose not to count the hours we spend outside the classroom, prepping classes, grading, supervising students in research, serving the university, the state, the country, and of course, doing research ourselves.

Still, that thick skin doesn’t prepare us for misrepresentations used to attack us for the successful education we do provide, year in and year out, to tens of thousands of students, many of them first generation college students whose access to education should be cause for pride.

Berkowitz gives a litany of what he, and the authors on whom he depends, see as defects in the education offered in the UC system:

None of the nine general campuses in the UC system requires students to study the history and institutions of the United States. None requires students to study Western civilization, and on seven of the nine UC campuses, including Berkeley, a survey course in Western civilization is not even offered. In several English departments one can graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. In many political science departments majors need not take a course in American politics.

Again, none of this is actually true– except maybe the claim that UC campuses don’t require (all) students to take a specific set of courses. They do require all incoming students to have had sufficient American history to expect that they can go on to explore history in more depth. Including the history of other places in the world.

This, after all, is what distinguishes being a college student: you go beyond what you were taught in your previous stages of education. Higher education in the United States is not organized like secondary school. In universities, students learn in more depth about a smaller range of things, and about things not taught at lower levels. Their goal is to become expert enough to use their specialization– in disciplines as distinct as Chemistry, History, and Performance Studies– in their eventual career.

How do you accomplish that? Not by taking basic introductory courses.

Institutions of higher education offer students a wide array of rich offerings in history, political science, sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines that directly examine life in the US.

At Berkeley, every student is required to take a course in American Cultures.

As it happens, yesterday was the last class meeting of an American Cultures course I taught for the first time, where students read about the 19th century challenges of Mexican and European immigrants in Chicago, the ways that pre- and post-Civil War African Americans coped with limited power, and how Chinese immigrants in Gold Rush California found economic opportunities despite discrimination.

I am proud to introduce my students to these topics and provide them with the tools to read and judge them for themselves.

A university education is more than an inventory of specific courses. That far, Berkowitz’ sources and I agree: it isn’t enough to show that UC teaches American history and Western civilization.

What matters is what we teach students to do: in our case, read, think, write, and decide for themselves.

And that, apparently, is threatening in some circles.

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Comments to "Why would anyone claim UC doesn’t teach American history?":
    • Patricia4470

      Rick Santorum demonstrated that he holds many irrational beliefs during his campaign. Several born Republicans of my acquaintance say they would have to change their political registration rather than vote for him. Using him to tar all Republicans seems over top to me. I have never heard of Peter Berkowitz but the Internet is full of bloggers who pass on misinformation. Thanks for ferreting this out but I hope your readers do not come away thinking all Republicans are the same. Yes, it’s an election year but we need to give up lockstep thinking.

      [Report abuse]

    • Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain who Peter Berkowitz is. Far from being an unknown internet blogger, as I noted above, he wrote the piece I cite for the Wall Street Journal. He is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

      I mentioned that Rick Santorum was a former Republican presidential candidate. I do not presume to identify the registered political party of those who provided Mr. Berkowitz with fodder. I can identify them, as I did, a “reactionary advocacy group”. As it happens, that group does conflate political party registry with other aspects of identity. I try not to make that error. But it is nonetheless the case that the attacks on higher education came from someone who gained his audience as a Republican politician. And to my knowledge, no other Republican politician contradicted his false statements.

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John '63

      Prof. Joyce, it seems as if the GOP is attacking education itself, even though education is the cornerstone of Democracy and we cannot survive as a Democracy without every child having equal rights to a quality education at least until age 20.

      They are also attacking voting rights and women’s rights (they have been refusing to ratify the ERA since 1972), and civil rights in general in their efforts to destroy the progress we made in human rights during the 60s and 70s.

      All their attacks during the 2012 election cycle must be fought back against by every American voter or we risk losing American Democracy, and the democrats must fight back just as hard as our founding father to protect our Democracy once again.

      A paramount fact is that the GOP is attacking Democracy by allowing themselves to be owned and controlled by SuperPAC oligarchs, which every American citizen must fight back against in 2012 by voting against republicans throughout America.

      Too many people fail to learn the history of Democracy since 6th Century B.C. Athenians created Democracy, especially the fact that far too many democracies have failed before ours because of attacks by oligarchs against We The People.

      Either we learn from history at last, re-elect President Obama and elect controlling majorities of democrats to the House and Senate in 2012, or American Democracy shall be at greatest peril since WWII and the Cold War.

      Prof. Joyce, thank you for fighting back.

      [Report abuse]

    • Vikrama Dhiman

      Can’t agree more on the comments you make towards the end of this well argued blog post:

      “A university education is more than an inventory of specific courses.”

      “What matters is what we teach students to do: in our case, read, think, write, and decide for themselves.”

      “And that, apparently, is threatening in some circles.”

      I do believe that online education would provide students more options in choosing which subjects they’d want to learn from.

      — Vikrama Dhiman

      [Report abuse]

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